Science, by Antonio Regalado on 26 May 2011

The passage on Tuesday by Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies of an amended forest law favorable to ranchers and loggers has brought an outpouring of concern from environmentalists, with some calling it a green light for deforestation.

The bill, which passed by a wide margin but is subject to change by Brazil’s Senate, offers amnesty from penalties for illegal cuts made prior to July 2008, and for small landholders in the Amazon (up to 400 hectares) it would suspend a rule requiring them to maintain a minimum of 80% forest cover, among other changes.

“It’s a disaster. It heightens the risk of deforestation, water depletion, and erosion,” Paulo Gustavo Prado, head of environmental policy at Conservation International-Brazil told The Globe and Mail .

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has threatened to veto parts of the bill, which also gives states more control over establishing conservation rules.

Rural lawmakers say the legislation is a much needed update to Brazil’s forest code, which dates to 1965, and argue that it would actually slow deforestation by allowing landowners to obtain legal titles to their plots. Brazil already has strict laws on deforestation, but these are only intermittently enforced in the vast Amazon region, leaving many farmers in legal limbo.

Brazil’s scientific community complained this week that researchers were largely shut out of deliberations. On Wednesday, the Brazilian Academy of Sciences called the legislation “precipitous” and said it had no “scientific and technical foundation” (statement, in Portuguese).

The society has called for another 2 years of scientific review.

Environmentalists appear set on rallying against the proposed changes. Marina Silva, Brazil’s outspoken former environment minister, called the legislation “one of the biggest steps backwards I’ve ever seen in Brazil. … We have returned to the worst possible world.” Indeed, the bill’s advance comes amid a recent surge in deforestation, which in March and April reached a pace almost five times that of 2010. Farmers may have cleared land in the hopes of winning amnesty, said experts, but rising commodity prices likely played a role as well by increasing demand for land. Brazil is a major exporter of food to the rest of the world, including soybeans to Asia and beef products to Eastern Europe.

Fueling outrage among activists, the bill passed in Brazil’s congress only hours after the killing of environmentalist and antideforestation campaigner José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva and his wife, Maria do Espírito Santo, in an ambush in the state of Para, which has among the highest rates of clear cutting. News reports said the ears were cut off of the couple, a sign of a contract killing.